Thursday, 6 November 2008

Careers Presentation - Mathematicians should consider Software Development

Yesterday I was invited back to Birmingham University, from whence I graduated five years ago, to give a careers presentation. I obviously haven't moved around regularly enough to get off the mailing lists! They wanted me to talk to the students about how my Maths degree is helping my career in software development.

Here's an only slightly edited version of what I had to say:

"I was in Los Angeles at a conference last week. You might have heard about this conference in the news: It was the one where Microsoft announced the next versions of  Windows. I wish I had time to tell you about the cool stuff I saw: Windows 7, Windows Azure, Oslo, Dublin, and a whole bunch of other code-names; but I haven't.  I mention it in only in passing because that was how I came to use Skype for the first time ever, talking to my wife and daughter back here in England. I might be a geek,  but I am a bit slow when it comes to getting the latest gadgets.

Skype is amazing: it's easy to setup, no need to remember a phone number – I just had to enter my wife's name to connect with her,  sound quality was crystal clear. And even when you call from the States, it's free - so I bet you students have all used it? Have you ever wondered how they did that? How they make Skype work? Or maybe it is that you've played a game on the Wii, or Playstation 3, and wished that you could create something like that.

If you become a Software Developer you might just get the chance to do just that: to work on the next Facebook, the next Ebay, the next Skype. Or maybe you won't work on anything so glamorous, but for your customers, whoever they are, your work might be just as significant - even more important - in getting their work done. That is part of the privilege and responsibility of being a developer: you can make the difference between a good day and a bad day for whoever is using your software.

My Background

I started working at Paragon five years ago - one week after my honeymoon, and two weeks after my final fourth year presentation. I started as a Junior Developer, responsible for implementing software that somebody else had designed, with a lead developer taking charge of all the project management. Over time I was given more responsibilities: like talking to clients to find out what they wanted their software to do, and leading other people in designing it. In the last few years I was doing more and more of the project management, and less and less writing computer code - I was getting withdrawal symptoms, and had to start doing projects in the evenings to stay sane! So I asked to be moved back in the other direction: now I am responsible for designing the new product that we're developing, writing code and leading the development team (it’s a huge team -  of two people - including me!). Someone else has taken charge of keeping the project on track.

I'll be honest, and say that my job isn't really very glamorous - I don't jet off to conferences every week. A lot of the time I sit at my desk: much of that time I'm typing away at the keyboard - sometimes I just stare into space - thinking and daydreaming - but all related to the project of course. Depending on the projects I'm working on, I occasionally have to meet up with clients and give presentations about our work, or lead discussions with them about what they want doing. One of the most exciting parts is at the start of a project, when all we have is a blank whiteboard, and we brainstorm together [sorry, that's not politically correct: I should say, we have an idea shower together - hmm, sounds worse!] to decide how we are going to solve the problems that we face. It's can be daunting, but also very satisfying once we've cracked it.

The Joy of Software Development

So what do I like about being a Software Developer:

  • There are always new things to learn. The number of new technologies is increasing at an exponential rate – at least, that's how it feels.  Companies like Microsoft and Google are bringing out new Software, and new Software Development Kits all the time. I do a lot of work with the Microsoft .Net Framework, and when it first came out, I thought that within a few years I could become an expert in using it. Now I reckon that it isn't possible for somebody to become expert in more than a 1/10th. You'll never run out of new things to explore.
  • There are always new problems to solve. Computers are getting more and more powerful, yet easier to program. They are being used to tackle an ever wider variety of challenges. At the conference last week, the head of Microsoft Research showed us just a few examples of things they've been working on. Software like the Worldwide Telescope, that anybody can download: it stitches together detailed pictures from observatories all over the world so that anybody can explore the universe from their armchairs. Even amateur astronomers have been using it to make new discoveries. Other new areas include Computational Biology - decoding the human genome, investigating cures for HIV, all with software; Robotics, Social software - applications like Facebook that scale up to connect millions of people; right down to creating computer games that teach kids how to program.
  • There are opportunities do so something significant, to make a direct impact on peoples lives. Paragon is only a small company, yet I've been able to work on a couple of pieces of software that are used to manage the clean-up operation at a major nuclear site.
  • Software development lets you turn dreams into reality fast. An Architect can imagine a building - but then he has to draw up his plans, and get approval for them; and he can’t complete the project without builders, who'll probably make a mess of his fine design, and could take years to complete the project. With software you can imagine something, and code it up straightway and get immediate feedback - never more so that than with tools we have today, which do the hard parts bits like managing computer memory or putting fancy graphics on screen, leaving you to do the really interesting parts.
How Maths Helps

As you can tell, I think that being a Software Developer makes for a great career. But how did my Maths Degree help prepare me for it?

  • Most importantly, it taught me how to think. Learning mathematics trained me to think precise, logical, step -by-step thoughts: the only kind that a computer understands
  • During my time at Birmingham, I learnt how to solve problems. I remember Problem Workshops - Friday Afternoons, up in the Maths Library. There I learnt how to strip the fluff away from a problem, to distil it down to its essence. I grew adept at looking at a problem from different angles - if we squint at it, does it look like a different problem, one that we do know how to solve?
  • And, of course, there are areas of mathematics that I learnt on specific courses that have proved to be very useful. Computers do a lot of Boolean algebra: And, Or, Not. Knowing your truth tables will stand you in good stead. Graph Theory is another thing that comes up a lot. Perhaps you've already noticed, but Facebook is one big Graph: the people are the nodes, and every time you send a friend request you are inviting that person to create an edge between you. In my job, I've found the stuff I learned about Operations Research to be really helpful. In fact, one of my first jobs was to implement software that used meta-heuristics like Simulated Annealing, Tabu search and Genetic algorithms.
  • Lastly, you'll be glad to know that the projects that they make you write, and the presentations that you have to do all help. It's very strange, but before clients will give you money to do some work, they insist that you explain to them what you are going to do, and why it will be good value for money. And when you've built the software for them, for some reason they want to know how it works and how they should use it. And you never know: in five years time, you might be invited back to give a careers presentation!
What to do next

So if I’ve convinced you that Software Development is something you’d like to look into for a career, what should you do? The main thing is: try it out, get some experience, build up a portfolio of work that you can show to a potential employer. There aren’t many people who would volunteer for you to try out your brain surgery skills on them; and you can’t practice rocket science in your back garden. But anybody with a computer can get experience in being a Software Developer. There’s lots of free software out there to help you. In particular, I would recommend looking at, a site where there are over two hundred mathematical problems which mostly can only be solved by writing a computer program: it’s an excellent way of building up your skills in the two areas. Then have a look at my blog:, where I’ve written up some of my solutions – and talk about software development in general.

The other thing I’d recommend is to find yourself a job working as a software developer during your summer holidays. I know that a lot of companies are interested in finding new talent, and offering vacation jobs is one of the best ways to do it; they often have little projects that they want doing, but don’t have time to do the work themselves. Find companies that are doing things you’re interested in, writing them a nice covering email along with your CV explaining all the hobby projects you’ve worked on, the experience you’ve built up, and I’m sure somebody will snap you up. Keep pestering them until they do - you've nothing to loose! It sure beats stacking shelves or working in a call centre.

I did this, and got jobs for all three of my summer vacations, and I got job offers from both the companies that I worked at; Paragon was one of those companies. They even sponsored me during my fourth year, which was very handy.

So, to finish: now is a very exciting time to become a Software Developer. It’s a very fulfilling and worthwhile career, with lots of scope for creativity. Your mathematical training will equip you well, and give you a big head-start. And you don’t need to take my word for it - download the software, and try it out for yourselves."


As well handing out company pens, and squeezy, stress-relieving light bulbs, I handed out a sheet listing a few useful websites:

Mathematics and software Mathematical challenges to solve by writing software Samuel Jack’s blog about software development, and solving Project Euler

Software Development Free Integrated Development Environment for writing Java software Free Integrated Development Environments for creating software for the Microsoft .Net platform. Free platform for creating games for Windows and the Xbox 360 Great site for getting answers to programming questions on all platforms Repository of Open Source Software, many projects welcoming new contributors Open Source software for the Windows platform. Lots of interesting software projects to try at home Great blog about software development


London said...

Good read, being a good problem solver does help but from my experience you need to couple this with coding skills. Writing code a computer can understand is easy, writing code a human can read is an art.

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